Commentary on four powerful music-meets-humanity books: New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans, Someplace Like America, Can't Stop Won't Stop, and The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop
In New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans ($27.95, Oxford University Press), John Swenson writes about Stevie Wonder’s appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2008:
Most of all, though, Stevie Wonder came to New Orleans intending to perform a healing on the city. Before he began, he invoked a moment of silence for those lost in the flood, then started out with a song meant to be appropriate to a weary moment in our history, "Love's in Need of Love Today." He had the crowd in the palm of his hand and got them grooving hard to "Too High." He returned to his evocation of the spirit in another philosophical song, "Visions," which was fitted with a new arrangement and Isaac Hayes-style funk vamp over which he delivered a series of preacher-like declamations organized under the refrain "I Can't Believe…":
Four dollars a gallon for gasoline but no health care…
I can't believe…
Some places are building more prisons than schools...
He swang from the vamp into a hard chorus:
Stop the hate
Stop the crime
Stop the war
With a dramatic flourish Wonder led the band into an early climax on "Living For the City." Just about everyone on the ground, which was crowded despite the imminent rain, was singing, and most of them were dancing, the very young and the very old. The spirit of abandon was giddy, joyous. A young girl standing next to me suddenly turned and blurted out: "I can't believe I'm listening to music my father likes!"
Wonder finished and said with a big smile, "Is this what you wanted me to do?" He followed up with "Jammin'," and Wonder was in overdrive, grooving the crowd hard. He clearly believed his music was laying a healing power on the city. Rain began falling hard, and Wonder began singing and playing "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," playing a full verse and chorus with new lyrics like "Don't let the rain confuse the issue" and "You brought your umbrellas" as umbrellas sprouted above the crowd. He moved aggressively into "Higher Ground." The line "soldiers keep on dying," written about Southeast Asia a generation ago but resonating with families whose children were dying in Iraq that day, sent a palpable shudder through the crowd. As he played beautiful versions of "Golden Lady" and "Ribbon in the Sky" while dark clouds occluded the afternoon sun, I thought of how often the sight-challenged Wonder had a vivid, almost supernatural understanding of the meaning of visual detail, the kind of things sighted people take for granted. Wonder played a magnificent "Overjoyed," which broke into an instrumental jam on John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," with Wonder showing off his jazz chops on grand piano. He broke into clave for "Don't You Worry ‘Bout a Thing" and then swept into an extended finale of a medley, beginning with "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered." The crowd sang the refrain, "You Can Feel It All Over," and indeed you could. Wonder punctuated the mood with shout-out tributes to New Orleans musical legends from Louis Armstrong to the Neville Brothers. He did "Sir Duke" and "My Cheri Amour." Irma Thomas came out, and the two finished with "Superstition."
It rained hard, but nobody in the enraptured crowd seemed to care.
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In New Atlantis, Swenson also describes in loving, intimate detail dozens of other smaller gigs which took place in clubs, studios, bars, parks, streets, and homes as New Orleans musicians struggled mightily to revive their culture in the wake of "the federal flood," known elsewhere as Hurricane Katrina. Along the way he explores the junctures of African-American and Native American life, of hip-hop and brass band music, of the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory and the soul of the city.
Note by note and brick by musical brick, the reader is pushed deeper into the pain of an abandoned city, following musicians who return to New Orleans only, on many occasions, to have the police arrest them simply for playing music. Meanwhile, drug-fueled violence spirals out of control. In the midst of all this, Swenson shows us around town, encouraging us to find hope and inspiration in the current mutations of centuries-old musical traditions.
The book ends with another tragedy, the BP oil spill of 2010, which saw musicians again rush into the gap to righteously place blame as they raise money for ignored communities. In the wake of that fossil fuel fiasco, Dr. John sums up the situation we face: "There's a two-way possibility here. Either something's going to happen or it ain't. If it don't happen, the future is weak. If something happens, it could be wonderful, a renaissance of spirituality coming true that this planet has always needed. I don't have no expectation. I have only belief in what is a possibility."
The Other Side of Midnight: Live in New Orleans, Galactic (Anti)—New Orleans funk-rockers Galactic are one of the key players in John Swenson's post-Katrina saga and many other important musical actors also showed up to play this gig—Cyril Neville, Trombone Shorty, Shamarr Allen, Corey Henry, the Soul Rebels Brass Band. Although Cyril Neville takes some effective vocal turns, this is mostly instrumental music, driven by massed and virtuoso solo horns and fleshed out by Jeff Raines' snarling rock guitar and Rich Vogel's imaginative keyboard playing. Galactic is steeped in the Crescent City's brass band music, which means their funk hits you more directly over the head than R&B (Galactic is a tower of power, but they ain't no Tower of Power). This music, recorded at Tipitina's at the end of 2010, demonstrates that the collective spirit that has always driven New Orleans music is alive and well and still doing what it's supposed to do.
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In the introduction to Someplace Like America ($29.95, University of California Press) by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, Bruce Springsteen describes how the duo's 1985 book Journey to Nowhere directly inspired him to write "Youngstown" and "The New Timer" for his Ghost of Tom Joad album. Then he sums up the new book in one devastating sentence: "The stories in this book let you feel the pounding destruction of purpose, identity, and meaning in American life, sucked out by a plutocracy determined to eke out its last drops of tribute, no matter what the human cost."
The stories in Someplace Like America are hard-won treasure. Maharidge, the writer, and Williamson, the photographer, criss-crossed the country, riding the rails as hobos and riding the highways in a big dilapidated car they called Das Boot.
In suburban Virginia, a one-day free dental clinic for homeless people was filled with throngs of white-collar, well-dressed people. When the director of the program was asked where the homeless people were, he said: "Those are the homeless people."
In Louisville, the Rolling Stones' "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" and James Brown's "Living in America" blasted through the Kentucky Exposition Center where the Real Estate Disposition Corporation (REDC) put a rock concert sheen on an auction of foreclosed homes. They go cheap, although too late for the hard-working Americans who were thrown out of them. REDC held a similar auction in Springfield the next day, Kansas City the day after that. With over two million foreclosures a year in the United States, that road goes on forever.
In Arizona, Maharidge and Williamson are surprised to hear the vision of Mexican immigrant Orlando Arenas, who told them "There needs to be a dialogue between the undocumented and the patriots. Why don't we work together to end NAFTA?…I'm not asking for us to hold hands with them as we go after NAFTA. But we want to work with them. We've got to work against the neoliberal people who are fucking up the world."
In the dead of winter, they meet up with Springsteen in Youngstown, trudging through deep snow to take a look at an abandoned blast furnace, the "Jenny" from Springsteen's song "Youngstown." They discover a huge mobile hanging from a girder—a scrap iron version of a steelworker, blowing in the wind. Trespassers all, they manage to avoid the guards and arrest.
Williamson's black and white pictures of American poverty are like little movies or morality plays, muckraking images that sometimes horrify but just as often convey a humanity that turns us toward something better, maybe even love. Maharidge's writing is sharp and purposeful, snarling with passion and blame and anger. But he's not afraid to ask hard questions of himself and of us all. What should we do? Are we getting the story right? Does anything make a difference? As his frustration builds, he says that "Our track record in effecting change (and by ‘our' I mean a very large contingent of writers, academics, film makers, artists, musicians, and so on) has thus far been dismal."
Yet Maharidge also writes of how John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, which sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first week and was in its ninth printing just five months later, helped push America to the point that "In Steinbeck's 1939, a majority of Americans were on the side of feeling compassion for their fellow citizens…In 1960 Steinbeck wrote that the ‘most rabid, hysterical, Roosevelt-hater would not dare suggest removing the reforms, the safeguards and the new concept that the government is responsible for all of its citizens.'"
There is no need to wait for another John Steinbeck. Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson have connected us to people who are archetypes in our crumbling society, people who have untapped talents, capacities, and intelligence. All that remains is to connect them to each other. Read this book and let yourself imagine where you fit into that.
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Jeff Chang's 2005 book Can't Stop Won't Stop is a masterful political and social history of hip-hop. The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas ($24.95, New American Library) does an excellent job with the side of the story that a 1999 Time cover described with the accurate assertion that "Hip-hop is perhaps the only art form that celebrates capitalism openly." Charnas was one of the early hip-hop journalists and a promotion man at seminal rap labels Profile and Def American,. He describes in great detail the internal battles over money, fame, and aesthetics and the external battles over money, censorship, and aesthetics with the major labels, the police, and with self-promoting opportunists like C. Delores Tucker. There's a complex dance between the ghetto and the suburbs that unfolds, the issue of race ever present, as when Time Warner executive Gil Rogin tells journalist Greg Sandow: "We have a deal with Quincy Jones that he can do anything he wants. And he wants to start a rap magazine. Do we really have to put black people on the cover?"
Charnas tosses out fascinating anecdotes like Halloween candy: the role of the mass looting of DJ equipment during the 1977 New York City blackout in the evolution of hip-hop; Al Sharpton as an FBI informant; Sugar Hill Records' Sylvia Robinson rejecting a free video for "White Lines" made by a then-unknown Spike Lee; the full story behind why Ice T pulled "Cop Killer" from the Body Count album; Tommy Boy Records' failed attempt to secure the record rights for the Stop The Violence Project after label head Tom Silverman proposed that all artist royalties go to charity but all distribution profits stay with his company.
In the end, the music proves unstoppable as it knocks down barriers at radio and television and overcomes its own New York-centric focus, all with eventual support from corporate sponsorship, branding, and product placement.
The primal impulses toward empowerment on the one hand and profit on the other represented by the efforts of Chang and Charnas are not mutually exclusive. Yet in a world where both the music industry and disposable income are evaporating, they appear to be on a collision course. There are many more books to be written.
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"Coltrane came in here somewhere around 1941 or 1942 as a student," Isadore Granoff once told interviewer Steve Provizer. "He had studied with Matthew Rastelli, one of the leading clarinetists and saxophonists in Philadelphia. He studied quite a number of years with him and we always found that after he was through with his regular lessons he would start to improvise, and we felt that there were very, very few students who could do improvisation as this young man did. In many instances, Mr. Rastelli would call me up and say, ‘Come on up, I want you to listen to what John does, that I can't do! It's impossible for me to do! It's just something new.' From the very moment that he learned his instrument, he wanted to revolutionize it, which he did. It was most interesting to hear him, because at first we didn't understand. He was doing things and we didn't understand what they meant. He willed his mind to capacity to do something different with the instrument."
Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews ($29.95, Chicago Review Press), edited by Chris DeVito, contains every interview Trane ever did, allowing the reader to better understand how and why he was doing "something different with the instrument."
What comes across above all is an all-consuming search, a quest to discover the "natural laws of music" and to fit "all the notes in." Coltrane not only practiced tenor and soprano saxophone obsessively, he also played guitar and harp and spent considerable time discussing Indian music with Ravi Shankar. Coming up as a young musician, he played in R&B bands and then became a restless soul in his own groups, using Wes Montgomery at one point and three bassists at another.
Coltrane speaks with some bitterness of Downbeat's refusal to cover him for six years yet expresses a degree of sympathy for the writers who didn't understand him and felt his music could threaten their careers. He describes the way that Miles Davis lack of communication with his own band gave him the freedom to pursue his own voice.
Coltrane discusses the ravages of war and poverty and expresses his admiration for Malcolm X, whom he went to hear speak on at least one occasion. "I know there are forces out there that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good."
What did he mean by that? "I want to be able to bring something to people that feels like happiness. I would love to discover a process such that if I wanted it to rain, it would start raining. If one of my friends were sick, I would play a certain tune and he would get better; if he were broke, I would play another tune and immediately he would receive all the money he needed. But what those pieces are, and what way do you have to go to arrive at knowing them, I don't know."
It is that outsized ambition--as a person, an artist, a world citizen--that is perhaps John Coltrane's greatest legacy. Now we have his words to go with his transcendent music.